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Smith-virginia Ties Created Intrigue

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff

  March 31, 2005

CHARLOTTESVILLE – As Virginia's search for a new basketball coach headed into its third week, there were few discernible signs of activity.

Reporters were met with nothing but denials when calling the athletic directors of possible UVa targets, although that didn't rule out the probability of third-party contacts.

The prevailing opinion, supported by numerous sources in the college basketball community, was that Virginia was waiting until it could talk officially with Kentucky coach Tubby Smith, who remained busy with the NCAA Tournament into late March. The Cavaliers would shift into high gear with other targets only after they received an answer from Smith.

Few people on the outside believe UVa can get Smith, an assistant at Virginia Commonwealth during the 1980s whose wife's family is from Richmond, but for UVa to put its search on hold while waiting for Smith suggested that the Cavaliers' brass must have received some sign of interest. The fact that Virginia athletic director Craig Littlepage and Smith are friends who have talked regularly by phone for years only added to the intrigue.

If Smith is unhappy at all, Virginia, with its new 15,000-seat building and otherwise modest expectations, would provide a new challenge without some of the pressure Kentucky feels to make the Final Four every year. If the Wildcats had lost either to Eastern Kentucky in the first round or to Cincinnati in the second round of this year's NCAA Tournament, the fallout from Kentucky fans might have been unbearable.

If Smith isn't interested, where will UVa turn? In the days that followed the March 14 announcement that coach Pete Gillen was stepping down after seven seasons in Charlottesville, there was considerable speculation about an "A list" that included Texas coach Rick Barnes and Golden State Warriors coach Mike Montgomery.

The Barnes rumors, however, may have been an internet creation. He has some history at UVa, having agreed tentatively to succeed Terry Holland in 1990. However, when Barnes returned to Providence after meeting with Virginia officials, then-Big East commissioner and one-time Providence coach Dave Gavitt put a tongue-lashing on him that caused Barnes to remove his name from consideration at UVa.

When it appeared that Barnes was UVa's choice, Montgomery, then the coach at Stanford, removed his name from consideration, as did then-Penn State coach Bruce Parkhill. Gillen, who was at Xavier at the time, also declined to get involved, before the Cavaliers settled on Holland assistant and former UVa player Jeff Jones.

It has been said that Barnes' pull-out sent the Cavaliers' program into a 15-year freefall, but that wouldn't be fair to Jones, who took the Cavs to the ACC championship game in 1994 and an appearance in the NCAA's Elite Eight in 1995. There appear to be some lingering ill feelings toward Barnes in Charlottesville, but if Barnes were interested – and it's well-known that he's been disappointed with the Longhorns' home attendance at a school that clearly values football most – UVa would be foolish not to talk to him.

As for Montgomery, many felt that Littlepage's four- to six-week timetable was a concession to the mid-April conclusion of the NBA regular season. As the end of the UVa season approached, there was considerable talk that Montgomery, then nearly 30 games under .500 with the Warriors, might be disenchanted in the professional ranks. Indeed, several of his former players said the less-structured environment of the pros was a bad fit for the coach, who himself sometimes spoke of missing the "eye contact" he had with his highly intelligent, attentive and respectful players in college.

Golden State subsequently was able to pick up point guard Baron Davis from New Orleans and almost immediately started playing better, going 6-4 over a 10-game stretch that included six road games. Also, one reason Montgomery took the Golden State job was that it meant he could live in his Bay area home.

Even if Virginia could come close to matching his four-year, $10-million financial package – that alone would require one of the most lucrative coaching deals in the history of college athletics – Montgomery likely would have to think long and hard about switching coasts and moving away from his long-established roots. Like Indiana Pacers coach and Virginia alumnus Rick Carlisle before him, Montgomery told reporters he had no interest in the UVa opening.

Bored Media Discussed Iavaroni

If there was an NBA coach who might be interested in the Cavaliers, it would be Phoenix Suns assistant Marc Iavaroni, a tough, gritty forward on Virginia's only (1976) ACC championship team. An obviously bored Virginia-based media contingent wrote numerous lengthy articles about Iavaroni in late March, but his lack of head coaching experience and limited exposure to college hoops since his playing days make him an unlikely candidate.

At the same time he was looking for a new basketball coach, Littlepage was tending to his duties on the NCAA Men's Basketball Committee, of which he will serve as chairman in 2006. Littlepage was in Cleveland as an observer during the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament and had similar responsibilities in Chicago during the second weekend.

In Cleveland, Littlepage got a look at two of the Cinderella teams in the field, West Virginia and Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and their respective coaches, John Beilein and Bruce Pearl. Pearl's team also was in Chicago the next week, although there has been virtually no discussion of his possible involvement in the Virginia post, and sources said the coach's abrasive personality would be a significant obstacle. On the other hand, nobody will be surprised if Beilein, despite his methodical, Princeton-style offense, becomes a serious candidate for the Cavaliers.

The Chicago regional was held on the same court that serves as the home base of DePaul, whose third-year coach, Dave Leitao, has been the object of Virginia speculation. If UVa is determined to hire an African-American and can't get Smith, Leitao likely would be near the top of the list. UVa president John Casteen III was the president at Connecticut when the Huskies hired Jim Calhoun, and Leitao (who played for Calhoun at Northeastern) was on the coach's original staff at UConn from 1986-94.

Virginia did not get high marks when it called a news conference for March 14 but said Littlepage would not take questions. It took two minutes and 28 seconds for Littlepage to read a statement, in which he began choking up while talking about Gillen and never actually said the coach had "stepped down," in the words given in an accompanying news release.

In subsequent e-mail exchanges with the media, Littlepage said he would not discuss the search, but he did provide some insight into the process, which does not include a search committee.

"Things get bogged down dealing with committees," Littlepage wrote. "The most important thing is getting broad-based input from industry leaders and institutional reps that can make a difference. I have had excellent resources at my disposal and will get great advice from people that know the league, know UVa, and that know college basketball. Being the ‘committee,' I know there will be consistency in how info is processed, and I don't worry about leaks."

There were few, if any, leaks in the first two weeks. Little had been seen of four-year senior associate athletic director Jon Oliver, a one-time Boise State player who was in Boise for the first round of the NCAA Tournament. That sparked speculation that UVa might be interested in Gonzaga coach Mark Few, but the Zags said they had not been contacted.

Predictably, Virginia fans were expressing increased interest in West Virginia's Beilein, who, like Smith, has ties to the commonwealth, having served as the head coach at Richmond before going to WVU. Prior to taking the Mountaineers on a thrilling Elite Eight run this season, Beilein posted winning records in high school, Division III, Division II, junior college and at two (Canisius, Richmond) other Division I programs. According to sources, he would have been the leading candidate for the Wake Forest job in 2001, had the Demon Deacons been unable to lure Skip Prosser away from Xavier.

Notre Dame coach Mike Brey, whose DeMatha-Duke-Notre Dame profile had made him an early favorite, fell off the charts after the Irish were relegated to the NIT and then lost a first-round home game to Holy Cross. Sources said he would be willing to listen to the Cavaliers, thanks in part to the Big East's upcoming addition of programs with questionable academic credentials, but it's still not clear that Virginia would be interested.

While Littlepage and others feel that the Cavaliers have good young talent, many coaching candidates would be alarmed by a situation that finds UVa without a free scholarship before 2007-08, the year after the new building opens.

Virginia, which signed three players in the fall, technically could add a fourth for 2005-06. However, the Cavaliers will not have a senior on the roster next year, and they already have taken a commitment from central Virginia schoolboy Stephen Kendall for 2006-07. The program was known for attrition during the Gillen era, but that's probably a pattern the new coach will want to reverse, at least in the long run.